Going behind Sheffield United's bid for Aaron Ramsdale, as Chris Wilder looks to turn the tables on AFC Bournemouth
Four years ago, when Chris Wilder burst through the doors of Bramall Lane, one of the first things he did was to commission dossiers - detailed, comprehensive and in-depth reports - on every player at his disposal.
Sheffield United, their new manager believed, had slipped into a coma. So, in order to resuscitate a club which had just finished mid-table in League One, Wilder prescribed a series of big and bold changes to both its personnel and approach. If there were people already in the building capable of facilitating that process, either immediately or in the very near future, then he wanted to know.
One of the expositions delivered to Wilder’s office at the Steelphalt Academy - a surprisingly small space with room for only a few personnel effects but affording a panoramic view of the complex’s first team training pitch - focused on a youngster who had just been awarded a first professional contract after graduating with honours from United’s youth system. His name was Aaron Ramsdale and despite still being yet to make his senior debut, the coaching staff Wilder inherited were already convinced of the teenager’s quality.
Those became evident a little over eight months later when AFC Bournemouth paid an initial £800,000 to acquire Ramsdale’s services. United did not want to let him go and even though they were on course to win promotion at a canter, recognised that the lure of Premier League football would prove impossible for the teenager to resist. So rather than try to block the deal, Wilder instructed Bramall Lane’s transfer specialist Carl Shieber to simply try and inflate the fee - the former property investment and asset surveyor eventually persuading officials at the Vitality Stadium to pay nearly £1m for someone who had made only two appearances.
Three-and-a-half seasons on, the power dynamic has changed. United are in the top-flight and reflecting upon a campaign which saw them capture the imagination of pundits and fellow professionals alike with the boldness of their performances. Bournemouth, meanwhile, are preparing for life back in the Championship after being relegated following a dispiriting campaign.
Early on Thursday morning, having calculated the odds on Dean Henderson returning for a third spell on loan from Manchester United are growing increasingly slim, Wilder made his move - tabling a bid, reportedly worth in the region of £12m, to bring Ramsdale back to South Yorkshire as part of his overhaul of United’s goalkeeping department. Although that was rejected, presumably because Bournemouth believe one of their prized assets is worth more, the England under-21 international’s desire to rejoin the side where he started his career means they could soon be forced to accept the inevitable and invite United to the negotiating table.
If, as seems increasingly likely, Henderson has left South Yorkshire for good following two hugely successful campaigns in South Yorkshire, he will leave very big boots to fill. The 23-year-old, who is demanding to be installed as Old Trafford’s number one or be sold to another of the competition’s heavyweights, was a driving force behind United’s rise to ninth in the table despite scoring fewer times than all but four of their divisional rivals - turning finely poised matches into narrow wins and draws by producing a series of superb saves.
But Wilder’s interest in Ramsdale makes perfect sense. Ten months Henderson’s junior, the fee United have proposed represents a significant chunk of the sum placed at the manager’s disposal to fuel a recruitment drive which is also targeting Reading midfielder John Swift and Matty Cash; the Nottingham Forest defender. But it would be an investment in the future and, given that retaining Henderson’s services for another season could cost upwards of £3.5m, arguably provides better value for money too.
Having featured in all but one of Bournemouth’s league fixtures since August, Ramsdale was a rare success story in Dorset last season after being selected by Eddie Howe, who left his position earlier this month, for the opening fixture of the 2019/20 schedule - a 1-1 draw with United, which saw him deny David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson before Billy Sharp’s late equaliser.
Although Wilder’s preference would have been to renew Henderson’s temporary agreement and then scour the market for a replacement next summer, United are aware that expressing an interest in Ramsdale now not only provides them with a degree of insurance but also strengthens their hand. By selling Nathan Ake to Manchester City for around £40m, Bournemouth can afford to barter. But they must also reduce their wage bill in order to show they are serious about complying with the English Football League’s financial regulations. Ramsdale is unlikely to be among the south coast club’s highest earners, despite signing a long term contract in October. But, in order to remain competitive and adhere to the EFL’s criteria, Bournemouth might decide it is better to do business with United rather than part company with - say - another of Wilder’s former players, Wales international David Brooks.
Wilder has already started overhauling his goalkeeping department, bringing in Wes Foderingham following his departure from Rangers and dispatching Jake Eastwood on loan to Kilmarnock. Darren Ward, viewed by Wilder as one of the best specialist coaches in the game, has been a key part of that process and is known to have been an admirer of Ramsdale during his spell at Bramall Lane.